Leah Melber, Ph.D. began her career in informal education while a college student in 1991 by joining the staff of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County as an interpreter within their children’s Discovery Center. She was immediately intrigued by how the physical setting of a museum or zoo can completely redefine, and reinvigorate, the learning process. She eventually earned a Ph.D. focusing on these learning processes and how the physical environment can shape experience. Leah has forged a robust career in the field to include experiences in exhibit design, research on learning processes, program development and actively supporting the professional museum and zoo community through committee service. Currently at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, her philosophy is to strike the appropriate balance between being inspired by existing successes while striving to explore new frontiers in learning to ensure the best possible experience for learners.
Do you work in a museum? If not, where do you work? Tell us about your job.
Yes, I work at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. I’m the Senior Director of the Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration, a new initiative located within our zoo’s education department.
What’s your educational background?
I have a BA in Zoology, an MA in education together with an elementary teaching credential, and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.
What was your ‘sticky’ moment?
My very first museum memory is seeing flamingos just outside the entryway of the Los Angeles Zoo and being so excited that this was just the first of many animals I was sure to see that day. Taking classes at the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles (now California Science Center) at six years old was when I really began to see that museums were places I could touch, explore and learn about things beyond my backyard.
What is the name of your blog? How long have you been blogging?
The name of the Hurvis Center’s blog is Museums Uncharted. Though I’ve been sharing blog-like updates on zoo projects through the zoo’s website for a while, Museums Uncharted was launched just one month ago.
What do you blog about? Why?
Museums Uncharted is focused on topics in innovation, how we as museums strive to push our field forward through unique and novel approaches while still balancing real-world constraints and challenges. This first month has been introducing the informal learning community to the Hurvis Center and its focus while sharing philosophical and theoretical topics that I think are important for our community to discuss.
What’s the last exhibit you saw?
The truthful answer is our own Regenstein African Journey exhibit. I needed a break from my computer yesterday and meerkats are always a way to perk up the day. Before that I was recently at Burgers’ Zoo in the Netherlands and their Burgers’ Bush exhibit is an enormous walk-through rainforest experience that is truly unique in its scale. It’s hard to concentrate on someone’s presentation when you see a giant fruit bat fly by the window.
What’s the last thing you bought at a museum gift shop?
Postcards. I have colleagues around the world with who I do a postcard exchange. I think it’s a wonderful way to share memories, keep in touch and ensure that bills aren’t the only thing that lands in your mailbox. Also, I’m in a phase where I’m more interested in accumulating memories rather than ‘stuff’ and postcards can be great triggers for wonderful memories.
If you were forced to spend the rest of your life in a library, a museum or a zoo, which would you choose and why?
Such a tough decision! I think the constant change and unpredictability of being around the living creatures of a zoo or sanctuary would be a wonderful way to live out my life. However, though I hold no training in the subject, I have a true passion for art museums. With so much to learn about, and be inspired by, I know a lifetime would not be long enough to fully appreciate what a museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art has to offer.
What do you see as the biggest challenge (or opportunity) facing museums today?
I think like many non-profit institutions, museums must always be cautious in how we use our resources. This caution can sometimes discourage us from taking risks in how we connect with audiences. When something is working, it can be difficult to justify exploring a new model, even if the potential for even greater success is there. The Hurvis Center is working to break through some of those challenges which is what makes it such an exciting project of which to be a part.
Share one piece of advice for those interested in working in the museum field:
Advanced education is definitely a critical piece to becoming a well-rounded museum professional. However, because the museum field is unique in so many ways, there is really no substitute for rich work experience. I would encourage individuals interested in a museum career to not wait until they complete a graduate degree to start building their experience base. An advanced degree alone on the resume is usually not enough to propel you into that first position. It needs to be complimented by experience, even as an intern or volunteer.
Thanks for participating in Meet a Museum Blogger, Leah!
Leah, thank you for bringing up the balance between advanced education and work experience. To attend graduate school or not to attend graduate school – that is the question. While experience may provide the upper hand in some hiring situations (although not always) we should all strive to become experts in our field(s) of interest(s). For some, it’s an MA, MBA or MLIS; for others, it’s a Ph.D. Wherever you fall in the spectrum – if you decide to take on graduate school or not – investing in yourself through professional development opportunities, workshops and/or higher ed, will not only make you more marketable but it will also make the museum field stronger. Not everyone needs a graduate degree in museum studies or education, focus on your area of interest and bring your strengths and expertise to the table. A museum staff is successful by the sum of its parts: art history, MBA.s, photography, zoology, etc. That being said, I agree with Leah’s sentiment – don’t wait to work! Experience as a volunteer, intern, or PT position can not only help you determine your fit within an institution, it can also provide opportunities to be in the right place at the right time – and getting your foot in the door is an important first step for any museum career.
In case you missed it, Leah blogs at Museums Uncharted.
Do you have any additional questions for Leah regarding her profile above? Feel free to start a conversation in the comments below or reach out to her directly on Museums Uncharted.
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